Marie Antoinette - Alice Birkhead

Long Live the King!

Dislike, and perhaps the dread, of death had caused the indifferent pleasure-loving Louis XV to avoid, whenever he could, all thoughts of his own end, though he was haunted sometimes by the grim shadow. He met a poor man in the forest one day and paused in the hunt to ask for whom was the plain deal box that he was carrying.

"For my father, sire," the peasant replied, and gazed long at the King, resplendent in a hunting-costume, but pale from the shadow, he saw cross his path, a reminder that he could not go hunting for ever.

"Of what did he die?"

"Of hunger, sire." The King turned I aside, his feelings jarred. He put spurs to his horse, but the black thoughts remained. Of such a scene he was thinking when the words came from his mouth, "After me, the Deluge!" He would continue to spend, but well he knew that one day there must come a reckoning.

Prayers and wild supplications had echoed through the churches in the memorable year of 1744 when the Prince, hurrying from one battlefield to another, was stricken at Metz by an alarming illness. Paris was in terror and priests interrupted their services to weep for the possible fate of one they held in honour. Then had they named him Bien amiť, Well-Beloved, a title become ironic by the time of Louis' last and fatal illness.

[Illustration] from Marie Antoinette by Alice Birkhead


By 1774 the King had lost the hearts of a people who realized that he did nothing for their welfare. He lay alone, save when his daughters came, braving the danger of smallpox, then so dreaded throughout Europe. The nation turned toward the Dauphin Louis, said to be kind and charitable and without many of the faults of his weary grandfather. There was an anxious desire in Paris to see a queen upon the throne. Rejoicing was out of place, but it was very genuine when Madame Dubarry issued from the sick man's chamber and bade farewell to her gorgeous salons. Her face had been her fortune truly, and she dared not risk her beauty. Marie Antoinette remembered with pride the brave Empress whose courage had nearly taken her from the world where she had been an heroic and admirable ruler, for Maria Theresa had nursed with devotion and had caught the infection of smallpox from her patient. There had been such real grief in Vienna when she lay on a bed of sickness that France might well seem hard of heart to the young Dauphine.

Louis called for a confessor and was duly absolved of his sins. They prayed for him in the Chapel of Versailles during a storm that drowned the solemn chanting of the priests and the words of awful omen. The court knelt in panic while the rain beat down and the thunder rolled as if demanding vengeance on the King. The Dauphin and the Dauphine knelt side by side, dreading the glory and majesty so soon to be theirs.

Few nobles were left at Versailles on the 10th of May, the date some prophet had declared would be the last for Louis. These few did not sleep, awaiting a sign indeed that would release them from a place grown ominous. The candle in the King's apartment was to be put out intimating that messengers could be sent off to break the news of the King's death to other courts in Europe. Horses were saddled in the great courtyard, and equerries wore boots and spurs, lest they should lose an instant. Upon the yawning crowd in the King's antechamber a strange silence fell, for it was there they had awaited the favours of the King. They wondered if the sixteenth Louis would prove as complaisant as the dying King. Suddenly a noise woke the stillness of the night for the Dauphin who was restlessly pacing his apartment. Marie Antoinette raised her head with a faint comprehension of what the rush of feet might mean and the clamorous entrance of the eager nobles. "The King is dead. Long live the King!" In France it was an ancient law that there must always be a sovereign.

The news startled the husband and wife raised to a dignity now deprived of its first attractions. They began to pray, appealing to Heaven for guidance. "We are too young to reign?" the new King cried, He was only twenty, while his wife was one year younger.

Crushed by the burden of taxation, the peasants had long murmured at the mad prodigality which squandered vast sums on jewels for the adornment of Madame Dubarry. They questioned her right to the splendid robes and the rooms where she supped gaily. She was pursued by curses as she retired from court, while voices hailed the new Queen as generous and kind—a woman who might raise the French throne to its traditional glory.

A faint echo of the first stampede must have reached the death-chamber where Louis XV was placed hastily in a leaden coffin. He would have smiled in his cynical fashion could he have seen the laughter and cheers that greeted the young couple who would have to bear the consequences of long centuries of oppression.

The new Louis, to be named Well-Doing, rolled off in his carriage to pleasant Choisy, while the May afternoon saw Louis, late the king, visited only by the State attendants. They buried him the next evening with so little ceremony that the procession following the bier did not even don black clothing. Mounted pages rode at the side, and gentlemen-ushers found it part of their court duties to be present. They wished the service ended as the torches flared, lighting up the faces of curious citizens who stood about the streets in rows and watched their former king on his passage to the Chapel of St Denis.

[Illustration] from Marie Antoinette by Alice Birkhead


In the convent, Graille wept for the father whose cruel jests had ever been directed at his daughters' lack of comeliness. She would have stopped her ears, could she have heard the gibes that were made in Paris by the crowds witnessing the interment of the Well-Beloved.

It was midnight when the simple funeral rites were at an end and the priests could congratulate themselves on having discharged a painful office. Day dawned almost jubilantly throughout France, the nation clinging most passionately to their old belief that change had come which must bring them good, that the old order had passed, and that a brighter era was beginning.